Page-Turner Alert! MFAH Libraries Offer the Rare, Old & Beautiful August 24, 2017

Jon Evans, chief librarian and archivist for the Museum, spends many of his days roaming through towering stacks of books and building the Museum’s impressive collection at the Hirsch and Powell libraries, which are free and open to the public. He spoke with me about the unique pages that fill the shelves.

How large is the rare-book collection?
The Museum’s library boasts about 5,000 volumes of rarities. Visitors can consult the entire collection, including the rarest of the rare! A few highlights:

  • Giorgio Vasari’s historically important survey on Italian art, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects)
  • Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, commissioned by the fledgling U.S. Geological Survey in 1882 and considered among the finest publications to chronicle the American West
  • Thirty vintage posters from the Guerrilla Girls, the group that shook up the art world in 1980s New York
  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent, now considered one of the supreme examples of American illustrated books

Guerrilla Girls poster
One of 30 Guerrilla Girls posters in the Hirsch Library’s collection

What’s the oldest book in the Hirsch Library collection?
Until very recently, the oldest book was is an important visual treatise on physiognomy from 1593. The Museum just received a gift of a book from the 1560s by Philip Melanchthon, who was a contemporary of and fellow reformer with Martin Luther, addressing the author’s views on the veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Which book is the most eye-catching?
Italiani di Mussolini by Celso Maria Garatti, which features a stunning copper binding that replicates the fasces on the spine. Fasces were traditionally a Roman symbol of republican power and authority that the Italian Fascists used for their own propagandistic means.

Italiani di Mussolini
The wood-and-metal spine and cover of the 1937​ edition of Italiani di Mussolini

What is your favorite item/book in the Museum’s collection?
Ouch, that’s like making me choose my favorite child! How about my top three?

  • The Complaint, and the Consolation by William Blake, for its integration of text and design during a period when this kind of combination was notably out of step with traditional “illustration.”
  • Industrii︠a︡ sot︠s︡ializma (The Industry of Socialism) designed by El Lissitzky, due to its sheer mastery and exploration of the possibilities of the book as a form.
  • Book 91 by Keith Smith, because of its ability to call into question what constitutes a book.

The Museum’s library catalog is available online. You can visit the Hirsch Library, which is encyclopedic in nature covering all of the visual arts, in the Caroline Wiess Law Building; and the Powell Library, focused on American decorative arts and material culture, in the Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and Education Center at Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens